Natural Burial Cemeteries

Should natural burial grave markers be subject to standards?

Grave at Ramsey Creek Preserve   photos by Tom Bailey

Grave at Ramsey Creek Preserve  photos by Tom Bailey

Humans probably have marked the graves of their dead for as long as they've lived in social groups, but the rise of massive cemetery headstones occurred only in the last couple centuries in America. It's easy to evoke an image of a modern cemetery with just a few strokes; green grass and upright stones or elaborate statues carved from stone and engraved and you know what it is.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to memorialize a loved one or to be memorialized yourself. Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions for creating his tombstone, including engraving three accomplishments "because by these," he explained, "as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground

We don't use polished granite or marble headstones in memory of people in green or natural burial grounds. It's not that rock isn't green, though one could argue that engraving uses energy. It's that we're creating a new landscape--meadow or forest usually--not something that looks like a cemetery, though that word means simply a piece of ground where burials are made, and we imbue it with our own concept of what it should look like. We are recycling ourselves back into nature and becoming a part of it.

According to the Green Burial Council which sets standards and certifies cemeteries, "Natural and conservation cemeteries must develop a plan for limiting the types, sizes, and visibility of memorial markers/features to preserve or restore naturalistic vistas in the cemetery landscape." 

Yet I was disturbed on recent tours of green burial cemeteries along the East Coast by the proliferation of large stones with elaborate engravings.

Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park

Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park

All the cemeteries I visited and those in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide put constraints on the kind of marker that's allowed on graves. Individual grave markers are usually limited to local stone that fits the landscape, must lay flat, not be polished or machine cut to shape. A few cemeteries impose size limits; Narrow Ridge Natural Burial Preserve in Washburn, Tennessee calls for grave markers of modest size, and at Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park in Austin, Texas markers must be less than 2 feet across. At Kokosing Nature Preserve in Gambier, Ohio graves are distinguished by unobtrusive markers. What struck me was how visible even a grave marker that fits the parameters can be.

Duck Run Natural Cemetery--stone path marks cremation sites

Duck Run Natural Cemetery--stone path marks cremation sites

Is this a problem? Isn't stone natural, especially if it was dug up in the cemetery anyway? A hundred years from now when a natural burial cemetery has become a forest will it detract if someone walking through the forest sees gravestones? Won't it in fact be kind of neat?

Green Hills Cemetery

Green Hills Cemetery

People sometimes perceive antipathy among green burial cemeteries to memorials. I think it's important to let people mark graves. Yet after visiting cemetery after cemetery, the size and number of objects began to worry me. Often I got caught up in bending over stones to see what they said and realized at the end that I hardly noticed the landscape that was being so lovingly created. Is the instinct to mark our passing through this world becoming mixed up with a human instinct towards grandiosity? Not everywhere, and not everyone, but natural burial actually doesn't look natural. In 20 years or so when there's nothing left of a body underground, what's the point of a personalized stone if the meadow or forest is the true memorial?

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve--no stone, just different flowers mark a grave.

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve--no stone, just different flowers mark a grave.

One solution cemeteries have come up with is to prohibit markers on individual graves and go for group memorials. This is especially relevant where a burial ground is attempting to create a new landscape and prohibiting human traffic is part of the strategy for getting plants going or preserving the look of the place; this is often seen with meadows.

Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville, Indiana doesn't permit individual grave markers and has erected a memorial wall with spaces for families to record the names of their dead and locate their graves in the section.

Cemeteries may designate such areas as "non-visitation," and anyone burying there is aware of the limitations. The Preserve at All Saints in Waterford, Michigan has both visitation and non-visitation sections, and non-visitation burials may be inscribed on a stone memorial wall. Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah, New Jersey, doesn't allow individual's graves in the Saint Francis of Assisi natural section to be marked but their names are inscribed on scattered boulders.

Steelmantown Cemetery

Steelmantown Cemetery

There's something to be said for uniformity, like Catholic cemeteries which limit the size of headstones in their conventional cemeteries as a way to indicate that all are equal in death. Truly small stones big enough to list the name and dates of the dead would allow for memorialization but not make the oh-so-human statement of "Here I am!"

St. Michael's Meadow. At Calvary Cemetery natural graves are part of the meadow landscape, with conventional sections in the distance.

St. Michael's Meadow. At Calvary Cemetery natural graves are part of the meadow landscape, with conventional sections in the distance.

 

 

Should natural cemeteries accept urns that include tree seedlings?

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Natural burial cemeteries are about a natural landscape and the trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, and animals that make it. But is that landscape created from plantings on graves?

I recently received a question from Isabelle Bolla at Bios Urn: "Does your book discuss places biodegradable urns can be buried? I know some green burial locations permit it, while others do not."

While I concentrate on full body burial and not cremains in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide, it was an interesting question because a Bios Urn is more than just a biodegradable urn; it's designed to turn the ashes of a person or pet into a tree. "Thanks to its design and manufacture, the urn provides proper germination and aids in growing a tree with a person or pet’s ashes."* The answer to Isabelle's question lies in whether a cemetery allows outside plantings.

I collected information from virtually all cemeteries in the US that practice natural burial to create the guide and this information allows me to see trends in many practical aspects, including planting policy. While regulations vary considerably the majority of cemeteries that do allow shrubs, trees or flowers on graves usually keep a list of acceptable plants. This is especially true where land is being restored or a particular landscape created, such as meadow or forest, though many of these don't permit customers to do planting of any kind.

Isabelle's question came not long before my second natural burial cemetery tour, so I took the opportunity of asking cemeterians whether they accepted urns containing seedlings. The first answer surprised me.

"What if the tree dies?" said Robin Simonton, executive director of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina. "How sad is it for the family to see that?" 

Sad for the family, and a potential nightmare for the cemetery. If a plant dies, who has responsibility? The cemetery clearly does if its staff plant and maintain the landscape. "Plantings as decoration are permitted with written approval," says Historic Oakwood's green burial guidelines. "Plantings are allowed from a list of noninvasive species native to the area" at Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest, North Carolina. "A native tree or wildflower may be planted on certain sites but must coincide with overall restoration goals" at Greenhaven Preserve in Eastover, South Carolina. If one of these cemetery-approved, family-planted trees dies, does the cemetery have to replace it? Even if families are told they are responsible for watering and maintenance, in our litiginous society will they refrain from going after the cemetery? Wildwood Cemetery (a conventional cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania) says it is not responsible for watering any plantings or for deer damage. How does that work?

It is surprising how few cemeteries don't allow plantings. Almost alone is Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville, Indiana, which stipulates "No decorations of any kind are permitted in the natural burial area. No trees or shrubs may be planted and no other plants seeded or set out on the graves." Greensprings Natural Burial Preserve in Ithaca, New York forbids any planting of trees and shrubs in its meadow areas but allows approved grasses and wildflowers. Even this is chancy, as Greensprings is attempting to cull non-native invasive perennials.

Other cemeterians I talked to expressed similar concern about being stuck with nurturing trees or other plants. Some, like Carolina Memorial Sanctuary in Mills River, North Carolina, which started out allowing planting of approved native plants are becoming stricter. Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, Virginia, completely controls planting, which is decided on and done on plans by an advisor. Isabelle says Bios Urn encourages native plants but that's not the same thing as requiring an urn to conform to a cemetery's requirements, and regional differences as well as cemetery landscape preferences vary considerably. Bios Urn lists 6 pretty generic tree options for North America, Europe, South America and Asia on its website and I would bet that any of them might be considered non-native somewhere.

Bios Urn clearly offers customers the option of including their own seed and cemeteries could ask that urn companies consult with them but that adds a layer of complexity and work for places which don't necessarily have the extra time or interest to do that. The easiest solution might be to ban plantings and avoid the issue entirely, or as do Preble Memory Gardens in West Alexandria, Ohio and Mound Cemetery in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, encourage families to donate plants or trees to be planted in the cemetery in memory of their dead but considered property of the cemetery.

* https://urnabios.com/